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$18K approved for bleacher fix; Croft sole opponent

Ballfield bleachers.The Baker County Commission agreed to spend money that wasn’t budgeted for recreational improvements after publicly acknowledging that some of the old bleachers at the Knabb Sports Complex fields in north Macclenny had deteriorated to the point of being dangerous.

Commissioners approved County Manager C.J. Thompson’s recommendation to spend $18,194 to repair or replace most of the wooden bleachers after expressing concerns for public safety at the ball fields.

Commissioner James Croft, who was elected in November, cast the only dissenting vote, saying this was the first time he had heard of any safety issues with the bleachers. He said the time to discuss expenditures for repairs was before the 2012-13 budget went into effect on October 1.

“I doubt very seriously that those bleachers got that way since October 1,” Mr. Croft said, adding that mid-year is not the time to increase expenditures in a deficit budget that was only balanced last year after an infusion of about $1.6 million in reserve funds.

“I’m not anti-Little League and not anti-safety, and I’m not anti-youth,” he said. “But this board has got to face reality. We are on a down-hill pull.”

Officials estimate the county’s reserve fund is down to about $3 million,  far less than it once was a few years ago before the fund became a regular source of dollars to shore up sagging revenues.

Other commissioners disagreed with Mr. Croft’s assessment, including Gordon Crews who said now was the time to fix bleachers when they’re most critically in need just before the spring baseball season begins, “instead of budget time in six months.”

Besides, Mr. Crews said, Little League officials complained about the condition of bleachers in the past, as well as other needs they said needed to be addressed. In fact, he said they “were screaming about it last year.”

“Maybe, but not when the budget was being prepared,” Mr. Croft replied.

Jerry Carter, president of the Baker County Little League Association, listened to the debate  for several minutes before he walked to the podium and urged the board to do something to help improve the ball fields where some 700 kids play yearly.

“We don’t run down here every year asking for money,” Mr. Carter said, adding that “the bleachers have to be replaced one way or another. It’s a safety issue. My concern is the safety of those fields.”

Mr. Thompson told the board that Road Department Director Robert Fletcher gave him a $4,600 check from the sale of scrap metal and suggested the funds go towards bleacher improvements.

Chairman Mark Hartley, current chairman of the New River Solid Waste Association, also noted that the county received $300,000 as its share of revenue from the regional landfill last week.

“I would like to use some of this money to get the ball fields in good shape,” Mr. Hartley said.

Again, Mr. Croft objected. He said the $300,000 could put a significant dent in the county’s deficit.

“That just means we’re $1.3 million in deficit instead of $1.6 million,” Mr. Croft said.

The only thing all five commissioners agreed on was to match a $750 contribution from the Little League Association to fund a $1,500 long-range plan for the ball park complex. Mr. Croft said such a plan is needed to get away from the “piecemeal” approach to improvements that have been the policy in the past.

“My goal is to one day turn it over to the Little League and get the county out of the ball park business,” Mr. Croft said. “Who knows a ball field better than the organization that runs it?”

Commissioner Jimmy Anderson said he agreed with Mr. Croft about the need for a long-range plan, but took exception to his continued refusal to vote for bleacher upgrades.

“I don’t agree …

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